Guest Post: An Open Letter to the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Photo courtesy of Bein & Fushi.

Guest Post:
An Open Letter to “The Indianapolis”
From The Mendtchaik Madman

I am informed via my Internet connection that the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (heretofore also known as “IVCI”) now wishes to be known as “The Indianapolis.” OK!

One of my mentors in the business of business once told me that the only thing worse than forgetting to listen to the customer was choosing an image makeover instead of improving the product.

Whether the process by which violin competitions turn out their product really needs improving is, without doubt, a matter of dispute. Not too long ago, Norman Lebrecht postulated that unlike piano competitions, violin competitions do not “make stars.

At the time Mr. Lebrecht’s post went up, I disagreed.

However, now that I have paid close attention to The Indianapolis 2018, I must admit my mistake. The violin-competition system is broken, and it must be taken apart and put back together in a different shape.

Continue Reading →

Indianapolis International Violin Competition Live Video Streaming

One of the most important international competitions for young (ages 16 to 29) violinists takes place in the United States every four years. (The other top-tier classical-music competitions that include violinists, Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky and Belgium’s Queen Elizabeth, also run on four-year cycles.) While one might expect the US entry on that list to be hosted in California or New York, the venue is: Indianapolis, of 500-mile auto-race fame—and for excellent reasons.

Indiana University (Bloomington) has one of the most outstanding music schools in the world, and that is where violinist Josef Gingold brought his remarkable career to a conclusion, as a Distinguished Professor of violin. Gingold was born in Poland in 1909. When his family came to America, his violin studies continued with Vladimir Graffman, father of the pianist Gary. Gingold returned to Europe in 1927 to study with Eugene Ysaÿe, a towering figure in the history of the violin. A composer as well as a virtuoso, Ysaÿe was the dedicatee of the Franck Sonata (1886), and led the first performance of Debussy’s string quartet (1893).

Gingold came back to the US and tried to build a career in the depths of the Depression. He contented himself with Broadway pit-orchestra work until 1937, when Arturo Toscanini hired him for the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Gingold’s career progressed to positions as Concertmaster of the Detroit and then Cleveland orchestras, the latter at the request of George Szell. Gingold remained with the Cleveland Orchestra until 1960, when he joined the music faculty of Indiana University. In 1982, Josef Gingold provided the artistic guidance for the founding of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

I think that the Indianapolis violin competition has succeeded to the impressive extent it has because of three factors. One, Josef Gingold’s worldwide reputation, not only as a performer and teacher but also as a fair-minded member of the juries of all the major violin competitions (including the Tchaikovsky and the Queen Elizabeth) made some degree of early success a relatively safe bet. (However, sustaining an enterprise into its fourth decade requires much more than that.)  Two, the synergy with Indiana University’s music school, which attracts students from all over the world. Third, and perhaps most importantly: if people started a violin competition in New York or Los Angeles, it would be just one more cultural event in a market crowded with them. Whereas in Indianapolis, an international music competition does not have much local same-tier competition for attention, donors, and volunteers.  (I think the same thing can be said for Fort Worth and the Van Cliburn competition, in the piano world.)

This year’s Final round of competitors’ performances runs from Wednesday through Saturday, September 12 through 14. The preliminary rounds and semi-final round video streams are now available for delayed viewing (scroll down for the preliminaries), and the final rounds will be streamed live. The audio and video production values are excellent, and the playing has been of a very high standard. The finalists are: Ioana Cristina Goicea (Romania); Risa Hokamura (Japan); Luke Hsu (US); Anna Lee (US); Shannon Lee (US/Canada); and Richard Lin (Taiwan/US).

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The Saddest Song

Open Goldberg Variations, Werner Schweer, editor.

Listening to “happy” music can make one feel happier. However, instead of always making people feel worse, listening to sad music often brings on a state of “paradoxical pleasure.”

I am not saying that listening to sad music in and of itself makes people happier. What I am saying is that listening to sad music can evoke a sequence of very complex emotions. Furthermore, many people regard experiencing that kind of a cascade of metamorphosing emotions as “pleasurable.” (Or perhaps, just as a relief.)

The somewhat waffle-like language employed above is in recognition of the fact that many people experience the same music in different ways. By the way, the sequence of emotions Shock/Disbelief/Anger/Despair formerly was called The Four Stages of Saab Ownership. “What do you mean, my engine’s harmonic balancer was held on with glue?”

I think whether the precise emotional mechanism (and what a silly word “mechanism” is to use, in this context) is transference or catharsis or a feeling of empathy will just have to remain a mystery of the human soul. But from the earliest times, serious thinkers (from Aristotle to Schopenhauer) have always recognized that the power of sad music (and also of literature and drama) does not lie in its merely making people feel sadder than they had been.

A recent BBC Culture article asks whether data diving can “reveal” the “Saddest Number One Song Ever.” I think that that article itself reveals the multiple, perhaps even fatal, limitations of such an approach.

If I had to pick one song known to me as the saddest ever (which avoids the major problems associated with judging the quality and the qualities of songs by things like Billboard charts or Grammys), that would be the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations might not have words, but right at the top of the score it says “Song” (albeit in Italian).

Song samples and more pondering, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Trio Wanderer: Schubert Trio, op. 100 & “Trout” Quintet

Trio Wanderer:
Franz Schubert, Trio, op. 100, D. 929; “Trout” Quintet, op. 114, D. 667
(
Vincent Coq, piano; Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, violin; and Raphael Pidoux, cello.
With Cristophe Gaugué, viola and Stéphane Logerot, double bass in op. 114)
CD Harmonia Mundi HMX 2908748
Streaming of these performances from the original CD releases is available from Tidal.

Trio op. 100 recorded at The Arsenal, Metz, July, 2000; quintet recorded at IRCAM Paris, June 2002. Jean-Martial Golaz, producer and engineer.

Poor Alex North. Stanley Kubrick hired him to compose a score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, when it came time to give the movie its première, to his embarrassed chagrin (he actually was sitting in the audience) North discovered that Kubrick had decided to ditch North’s score and stick with his own cut-and-pasted “guide” score.

Kubrick had assembled his “guide” score from a wildly disparate selection of pieces or movements—from Ligeti to Richard Strauss to Johann Strauss II to Khachaturian, and then back to Ligeti. So North, at the time a rather successful film composer whose credits included A Streetcar Named Desire, The Misfits, and Spartacus, was left holding the bag in public, at least in terms of professional reputation (and almost doubtless in various financial senses). Reportedly, Kubrick was so difficult for North to work with that North supervised the recording sessions for his score while lying in a hospital bed brought in for the purpose, because of stress-induced muscle spasms in his back.

I don’t think the same thing could have happened with Kubrick’s under-rated Thackeray adaptation Barry Lyndon. After the surprising success of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s soundtrack LP, I think Kubrick always would again decide to pick his own music—and brook no opposition. And because Barry Lyndon is a costume drama set in the mid-18th century, it is likely Kubrick did not get any pushback from studio executives about using classical (and some folk) music. For Barry Lyndon, Kubrick chose music from Irish traditional-music greats The Chieftans; and from Schubert, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Frederick the Great, Vivaldi, and Paisiello.

As I have written before, I think that the climactic third and final duel scene in Barry Lyndon inspired Ridley Scott’s penultimate scene (“Tears in Rain”) in the original Blade Runner film. Not incidentally, the final duel in the film Barry Lyndon was entirely Kubrick’s own invention; it does not appear in Thackeray’s novel.

A Trio Wanderer Schubert Trio op. 100 slow-movement live performance video, and more commentary, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Ioana Cristina Goicea: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

The Internet radio station I listen to most often is Bavarian Radio’s Classical channel. To get to it, click here and scroll down to the “Radio” section of the home page, and then click on the “BR Klassik” tile. A pop-up window will appear with the BR player application. I should do a separate blog entry on br.de; for the moment, all I need to tell you is that its programming is a refreshing breath of fresh air, especially if you are sick of US commercial (or, for that matter, much of “public”) classical radio, where the “Mozart Minute” is followed by “Drivetime With Dvorák.” A welcome feature of br.de is frequent delayed broadcast of live concerts.

So, the other morning I clicked on the BR Klassik tile, and I was greeted by the familiar sounds of the first movement of Brahms’ violin concerto. In mere seconds, my ears were decisively grabbed. I played a little game with myself, not looking at the player app and trying to guess the identity of the violinist. Hmmm… this one’s a toughie! Sounds like a studio recording… . A huge and complex tone–one could imagine one was listening to chords on a pipe organ. Effortless technique. Thoughtful interpretative touches. A musical conception of the work as a whole, and not merely as a sequence of technical challenges. No playing fast, only for the sake of playing fast. Hmmm. Not Oistrakh, not Menuhin, not Mutter. But a first-rank player, no doubt.

OK, I give up. Oh. Ioana Cristina Goicea.

Now, the 2018 winner’s performance of the Brahms concerto from the German Music Competition (held this March in Siegburg) does not appear to be available on demand. So I have posted the next best thing, a performance of the Tchaikovsky (from the Michael Hill International Violin Competition) that exhibits all of the virtues noted above. Ms. Goicea, born in Bucharest, is reportedly still pursuing her graduate studies in Germany. All I can say is, she’s one to watch—and more importantly, to listen to. Will some international concert management firm please sign her, pronto?

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Dan Bern: “Jerusalem”

My post about Gidon Kremer & Co.’s chamber-orchestra version of Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” (from the soundtrack of Marco Bellocchio’s film version of Pirandello’s Henry IV) had as its jumping-off point a rumination on the Nobel Prize in Literature. After listing many literary luminaries who never got the award, I did say, “Still and all, there are a few unimpeachable selections (Bob Dylan, in my opinion, is most definitely not among them).”

In my opinion, handing the award that should have gone to James Joyce but never did, to Bob Dylan, just sealed the deal as far as the Nobel Literature Prize’s being a cross between the Nobel Peace Prize and a popularity poll. Who is next? Danielle Steel? (After all, she has sold 800 million copies of her more than 150 books.)

So, I have long thought that it was past high time that Mr. Zimmerman could use being taken down a peg or two. I am hugely glad to report that Dan Bern has done just that for us (and if “Jerusalem” is not a Bob Dylan Parody, time is out of joint… ).

Dan Bern’s “Jerusalem” has it all: the mind-numbingly repetitious guitar playing; the whiny vocal; the total self-absorption of the lyrics; the apocalyptic grandiosity of the vision; and, most of all, the passive-aggressive approach to affairs of the heart (“Accept my love, don’t test my love/ ‘Cause maybe I don’t love you all that much”). I particularly love that the singer’s therapist’s name is Dr. Nusbaum, which is close to the German for “Nut Tree.”

One might quip that the specialty of Dan Bern’s house is “Filet of Bob Dylan.”

Well done!

(Thanks to Positive Feedback Online‘s Clark Johnsen for introducing me to this song.)

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Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica: Astor Piazzolla, “Oblivion” from “Henry IV”

I think that the assertion that the Nobel Prize in Literature is essentially silly (and therefore, we are fools for taking it seriously) has something to be said for it. (Those happen to be the positions of the British novelist and translator Tim Parks.)

Not one of: James Joyce, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Henry James, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Mark Twain, Nabokov and Chekhov made the cut. But strange omissions compete with strange awardings—John Steinbeck “got the gong” (a slang term for a large medallion), yet James Joyce did not? Furthermore, the requirement that a candidate must be alive to receive the prize meant that late-blooming (or posthumously published) authors such as Kafka, Proust, Calvino, and Mandelstam could not even be considered.

Still and all, there are a few unimpeachable selections (Bob Dylan, in my opinion, is most definitely not among them).

In my opinion, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Solzhenitsyn, Faulkner, and Hermann Hesse all deserved the money and the medal. I even think that Sigrid Undset (who?) was a deserving recipient. Undset’s massive (1400 pages) Medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter should be much better known. I am tempted to say that if you loved The Lord of the Rings, you should try Kristin Lavransdatter. (In the period when she was “working up to” Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset had published a Norwegian translation of the Arthurian legends.)

For what all this has to do with Gidon Kremer and Astor Piazzolla, please click on the jump link. Continue Reading →

In Memory of David A. Wilson II, 1944-2018

David Wilson, assembling a WAMM loudspeaker, 1986. Courtesy of Wilson Audio.

In Chicago in 1972, Peter McGrath was holding down a part-time job in a stereo store, while he pursued his graduate studies in fine art.

For those who were not alive and aware at the time, the early 1970s witnessed the dawning of the second Golden Age of Hi-Fi. The first Golden Age encompassed the late 1940s through early 1960s. Pioneering companies included Fisher, McIntosh Laboratory, and Marantz (electronics); Klipsch (horn loudspeakers); QUAD (electrostatic loudspeakers, and electronics); and Acoustic Research (acoustic-suspension loudspeakers, and turntables). The great hi-fi companies of the 1950s established the component stereo system (consisting of a turntable and sometimes a tuner or reel-to-reel tape deck, vacuum-tube amplification, and loudspeakers) as a vital part of what was understood to be “the good life.”

I think it is tremendously important to point out that although hi-fi started out as a hands-on hobby for technically-inclined males, by the late 1950s, high-quality music playback in the home via stereo components was almost universally regarded as something to aspire to—even if in many cases, people had to settle for suitcase stereos or the massive pieces of furniture called console stereos. Going back and reading general-circulation magazines of the 1950s (as well as male-oriented magazines such as Esquire and Playboy), one is struck by the prevalence of advertisements for hi-fi components and loudspeakers, as well as for “culturally improving” book and record clubs.

More context, backstory, and appreciations of David A. Wilson, after the jump link. Continue Reading →

Bricasti Design M15 Solid-State Stereo Amplifier

 

I just had a rather arresting (in the sense of, one has to stop doing anything else, and just listen) listening experience. I want to share it with you. The music I was listening to is from an underappreciated (really, almost unknown) classic-era jazz recording; but I have heard it many times.

However, I had never heard it like this—it was a real “Holy Poop!” moment. (The truth is, I did exclaim rather loudly, 19 seconds into my favorite track.)

The recording is Guitar Forms, guitarist Kenny Burrell’s 1965 orchestral collaboration with arranger and conductor Gil Evans, the same Gil Evans of Miles Davis Sketches of Spain fame. (Guitar Forms remastering, Verve 314 521 403-2; imported CD from Amazon; also available streaming from Tidal.)

Creed Taylor (later of CTI, the crossover label that so many loved to hate) produced, while Rudy van Gelder was the engineer. Session players included Lee Konitz, Bill Barber (both of whom played on the Birth of the Cool recorded live performances, as well as the recording sessions), Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones. How can you beat that? Guitar Forms is a wonderful recording, so even if you are not in the market for a new power amp, you owe it to yourself to read on. A generous sound sample and more audio commentary are to be found after the jump. Continue Reading →

Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie: “When the Levee Breaks” (1929)

 

The infosphere is fairly crackling with the news that the current incarnation of the musical ensemble Fairport Convention Fleetwood Mac has notified one of its elderly members that his services will not be required for their upcoming world tour. More than 40 years later, Fleetwood Mac Drama still grabs headlines.

My favorite story about Fleetwood Mac is that during the Narcissistically tumultuous (my words, not theirs) recording of their 1977 mega-album Rumours, the two remaining founding members of the band (Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) repaired to the recording studio’s parking lot to get a breath of fresh air. One of these two gentlemen, not at all at peace with the way things were then developing (at the time, the tattered remnants of the original band were being either re-energized or supplanted by a pair of newcomers), said (or perhaps it is more accurate to write, “whined”) to the other,

“You know, we used to be a blues band.”

To which the other replied, “Yeah. But now, we’re rich.”

(That riposte refers to the fact that while the group was recording Rumours, their most-recently-released recording Fleetwood Mac, which was the first album with newcomers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, was topping the charts and already throwing off so much cash that the previously hardscrabble members of the band were buying houses in Los Angeles. But: A blues record, Fleetwood Mac was not.)

That exchange says a lot about the endgame of British popular music’s fascination with American blues music.

Intriguing history, and sound bytes, after the jump link. Continue Reading →